Xbox Dreadnought?

HMS Dreadnought at a stroke condemned every other battleship on the planet to the scrap yard. Launched in 1906 she represented a revolutionary step change in ship design combining big guns and new Parsons steam turbines with heavy armor in such a way that she could out-gun, out-pace and out-protect any battleship afloat.  Is warfare about to encounter another Dreadnought moment–an Xbox Dreadnought? 

Two events in the past few weeks suggest for once that a real revolution in military affairs may be starting; a step change in the relationship between technology, force and effect that will profoundly impact strategy, tactics and doctrine.  Last week, American computer security firm Mandiant identified a building in Shanghai as the source of 147 cyber-attacks on the United States as Unit 61398 of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.  Recent protests at the Senate confirmation hearings of CIA Director-elect John Brennan demonstrated the growing unease amongst human rights activists and legal scholars about the use of drones by US forces. Both reports miss the essential point for taken together cyber and drones represent nothing less than future war.

Drones first.  They offer a cheaper alternative to sending armies into difficult places during unpopular wars.  For hard-pressed political and military leaders exerting influence at low cost is an attractive option.  Ironically, the issue of actual comparative cost is not one that works today when compared to the use of manned aircraft.  It is a difficult comparison to make but several studies, including a 2007 study led your Blogonaut, suggest that drone costs per flight hour are not much cheaper than manned fighters or Apache attack helicopters.  The cost of the electronics is roughly similar and although there are savings in weight and there being no need to provide safety systems to support a pilot drones are not very effective in complex combat scenarios. 

However, whilst the operational flexibility they afford commanders may as yet be limited what matters is the ever growing distance between target and operator to the point where the latter is to all intents and purposes invulnerable.  And this is just the beginning. Exactly the same can be said for cyber-attacks.  Clearly cyber and drones are here to stay as the market for the capability (both military and commercial) is booming and diversifying.  

Take cyber and drone technology together and the dawn of robot wars is a future that is not too hard to imagine.  This does not for a moment suggest that traditional platforms such as ships, aircraft and armored vehicles will be rendered obsolete on the battlefield. Rather, they will need to be seen as increasingly robotic (and upgradeable) platforms that are part of a battlefield so large and so remote that the distinction that Clausewitz made between strategy and tactics could become nigh on irrelevant. 

For the West it could be an opportunity to offset the high cost/low numbers problem all Western militaries face in which maneuver is only achieved at the expense of mass.  For Asian and other actors it could offer the chance to offset American technological advantage. The ancient Chinese warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu said that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. 

As yet no strategic concept worthy of the name has been crafted that incorporates concept, command, cyber, drones, and platforms into a new way of warfare.  When that idea comes the Xbox Dreadnought will be reality. 

The purpose of HMS Dreadnought was to make the cost for Germany of competing with the Royal Navy so high as to render a naval arms race impossible.  On the face of it the gamble failed.  In fact, Germany was never able to match the British given Berlin’s focus on land power.  Indeed, the thing about the Dreadnought was not the fact of new technology, but rather the way it was combined and the impact it had on naval strategy, tactics and doctrine.  This culminated in the May 1916 Battle of Jutland when the British and German battle-fleets clashed in the greatest sea battle in history in a way that would have been unimaginable even a decade prior.  And, whilst the tactical outcome of Jutland is contested the strategic victory it afforded the British is clear.  The naval blockade that did so much to force Germany’s 1918 submission was confirmed by Jutland.

Karl von Clausewitz said the overriding aim of war is to disarm the enemy.  Taken together cyber and drone technology suggest small beginnings for a very big and possibly dangerous future as the gap between action and effect is lengthened.  Given today’s strategic landscape historians may look back on this period as the true beginning of a form of robotic warfare.

One thing is clear–the eye in the sky and the ear in the ether is here to stay.  The race is now on for the Xbox Dreadnought.

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

Image: HMS_Dreadnought_1906_H63596.jpg